Saturday 2 May 2020

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, Syrie James (2009)

With my own Bronte-inspired novel, Bronte’s Mistress, coming out in just (!) three months (August 2020) from Atria Books, I was so excited to read the next novel in my Neo-Victorian Voices series—Syrie James’s The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte (2009).

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, Syrie James (2009)
James’s novel may be titled a diary, but it reads more like a memoir—a novelisation of Charlotte Bronte’s life as she herself might have written it. Charlotte’s relationship with her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, is at the heart of the novel’s dramatic arc, but all the most compelling stories that make up the Bronte myth are here—from the early losses of two sisters and a mother that marred the Bronte siblings’ childhoods, to Charlotte’s time in Brussels, which formed the inspiration for much of her published work.

James does a wonderful job of interweaving fact and conjecture, and in bringing the Bronte household in Haworth to life. She always makes us aware of the limited space within the parsonage and the resulting difficulties of keeping anything secret between the adult siblings.

Reverend Bronte, the Brontes’ father, doesn’t come out of the story well. Otherwise, most characters are painted in accordance with Elizabeth Gaskell’s sensational Bronte biography, which makes a lot of sense, given her relationship was primarily with Charlotte. Emily loves the moors and is most comfortable with her dog, eschewing all other company. Anne is shy and religious. Branwell is a raving drunk, despite the promise of his youth.

It’s Charlotte herself whom, appropriately, we come to understand on a deeper level. I loved how James created a character with the perfect blend of outward awkwardness and internal passion. The book’s central romance raised a fascinating question: how could any real love even hope to compete with Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester in Charlotte’s eyes?

I think the novel would serve as a wonderful introduction to the lives of the Brontes, since the story cleaves so closely to the historical record. For those well versed in the Brontes’ works, the joy of reading the book comes in playing “spotting the sources” for the ideas, and sometimes passages, inspired by the sisters’ famous novels—and, of course, in getting access to Charlotte’s secrets as never before.

Which novel would you like the Secret Victorianist to review next in my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Plus, big news, if you’re signed up to my email newsletter already, or if you sign up this month (May 2020) using the link below, you’ll be in with a shot of winning one of two advance reader copies of Bronte’s Mistress, prior to its publication! My novel gives voice to Lydia Robinson, the older, married woman, who had an affair with Branwell Bronte, and offers a new perspective on English literature’s most famous family. Sign up below!

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